Live Reviews: Bobby McFerrin

National Concert Hall, Dublin26 May 2008When I was eight years old, the biggest thrill of the week was the ten o’clock children’s mass. As the reverend monsignor skipped his way through the formalities of the service, all we children wanted was...

National Concert Hall, Dublin
26 May 2008

When I was eight years old, the biggest thrill of the week was the ten o’clock children’s mass. As the reverend monsignor skipped his way through the formalities of the service, all we children wanted was for him to call us all up onto the altar to recite – and act out – the ‘Our Father’ with him. Father Devine held a captive audience with the further promise of the rare but highly valued tours of the sacristy when he was in the mood.

I had forgotten this innocent excitement until the lights of the National Concert Hall dimmed to leave only four monitors, a chair and a bottle of water in the light. Shouts of ‘welcome back’ and ‘we love you’ greet Bobby McFerrin’s return to Ireland after three years; his audience remains ever faithful. A beaming smile and a simple bow, microphone to head: McFerrin’s own idiosyncratic, hindu-esque gesture. Then silence.

Stylistically, McFerrin presents a complex show. He sings in three independent, yet complimentary, voices: a growling contrabass, his more natural pop baritone and a haunting counter-tenor, all supported by a dazzling array of mouth noises and the omnipresent off-beat pounded on the chest. In this show without an interval, these contrasting sounds feed the momentum. An ostinato bass and baritone arpeggios support the alto melody, all sung at a fierce clip.

McFerrin breaks from the improvised polyphony with a slow, keening Scottish lament. Then all of a sudden he’s pointing at us: Father Devine has finally invited us up to the altar. His eyes, burning with intensity, demand ‘sing this!’ We support an extended North-African melisma, stopped by a casual but deliberate gesture: there is no questioning the man’s wishes, no time to think about not joining in. McFerrin ceases being a star performer, becoming just another singer in this great ad-hoc choir of children at play.

McFerrin is joined by various guests during the performance. A slightly over-zealous dancer drawn from the audience; a duet with otherwise-excellent bodhrán player Robbie Harris seems a shade forced until Hothouse Flowers frontman Liam Ó Maonlaí completes the trio for ten minutes of joyous improvisation. But the crowning glory of McFerrin’s collaborations on the night was his volunteer choir: thirty or so singers, each obeying his every instruction. Although the imbalance of enthusiasm and experience led to inherent tuning problems and an overall poor sound, the choir showed McFerrin at his best, captivating a group of all ages.

McFerrin could do without some of the more pandering moments of the show – his re-enactment of The Wizard of Oz was impressive and funny but unneccesary and unseemingly graceless, but his talents for both music and showmanship are great. His performance transcends language, age and culture. He may have lost some of the vigour and quirkiness of his first gigs twenty-five years ago, but he hasn’t lost an ounce of style.

Published on 1 July 2008

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